On Blogs and Voices

The always interesting Timothy Burke has a post that's basically a long links dump pointing to two articles about the state of humanities in academia, which includes a sort of aside that is more interesting to me than either of the linked articles:

This leads me to the second piece I really liked in this past week, at Ian Bogost's blog. Now, look, to some extent this essay is just Bogost being Bogost: whether in tweets, blogs or books, you get the clear sense that he exemplifies the quip about not wanting to be part of any club that would have him as a member. The voice that I've built up on this blog over the years is so sedately reasonable that I can't really write in this space any longer in a more expressive way, as I once think I could, but if I could, I'd probably write very nearly what Bogost says in this entry.

The topic of bloggy voices is something that has been coming up a lot lately, in my mind at least, and I keep almost writing about it. Burke's angle is a new one-- I hadn't previously thought that much about an established voice being confining, but once he brought it up, I immediately said "Yeah, that's right."

Of course, there's another slant on it as well, which is that a lot of the time, the voice is what makes the blog.

This is often a Good Thing. Take, for example, the Bogost blog post Burke mentions. This is very definitely a post with a particular voice:

If there is one reason things "digital" might release humanism from its turtlenecked hairshirt, it is precisely because computing has revealed a world full of things: hairdressers, recipes, pornographers, typefaces, Bible studies, scandals, magnetic disks, rugby players, dereferenced pointers, cardboard void fill, pro-lifers, snowstorms. The digital world is replete. It resists any efforts to be colonized by the post-colonialists. We cannot escape it by holing up in Berkeley waiting for the taurus of time to roll around to 1968. It will find us and it will videotape our kittens.

I love that, particularly the last sentence. While I suspect that Bogost and I do not share many of the same academic concerns and preoccupations, the voice that comes through in this paragraph makes me want to immediately add him to my RSS feeds (I'm going to read more of his stuff first, though, because I've been burned by this impulse in the past...). Similarly, the most recent major addition to my daily reading has been Ta-Nehisi Coates, becase even when he's writing about stuff I don't particularly care about, I like the way he writes.

Of course, the whole voice thing becomes more complicated when you look at blogs that feature multiple voices, or changing voices. Crooked Timber recently added a new blogger, and her voice is different enough from what I think of as the default Crooked Timber voice that it was really jarring. There's nothing wrong with what she writes, but the voice she uses is not what I expect, and the first few times I read one of her posts, I had to scroll back up after a paragraph or two to see whether I had somehow accidentally added a new blog to my feeds. I have something of the same reaction on those occasions when somebody other than Sean Carroll posts to Cosmic Variance-- there's nothing wrong with them, and some of their contributions are truly outstanding, but it's not the voice I expect when I click on a post from that blog.

Group blogs are an interesting problem, because while a few different voices contributing can be a good thing, too many voices can put me off a blog entirely. I've been a big fan of the college hoops blog the Mid-Majority, but this year the founder, Kyle Whelliston, took a step back, and re-invented the site as a sort of crowd-sourced community blog. Which is a great idea in principle, but in practice it's mostly demonstrated that what I liked about the site was Kyle's distinctive voice. The people writing for the 800 Games Project share a lot of Kyle's ideals and attitudes toward college hoops, but they don't write in his voice, and that's put me off the site to a degree I find a little surprising.

Another example is Slacktivist: when Fred Clark moved the Slacktivist blog to Patheos, some of his large and active community of commenters took over the original site, and reinvented it as the Slacktiverse. And again, while they share a lot of Fred's attitudes and interests, they don't write in his voice, and as a result, I find myself skipping more posts than I read.

(Happily Fred, unlike Kyle, is still writing at his new site, where he is still blogdom's best writer on religion and politics in America. I could easily include just about everything he posts in the daily Links Dump posts here.)

There are cases of blogs where a change of primary authorship has been carried off successfully-- Unqualified Offerings made the move from Jim Henley's personal blog to mostly "Thoreau" without falling out of my RSS reader, but it's a very different blog now than it was back in the day. That transition also took place adiabatically, as it were (in the atomic-physics sense of the word): it was just Jim for a long time, then a mix of the two, then Jim mostly dropped out. The blog changed character, but it was not a sharp, discontinuous process, but a smooth evolution. This is very much an exception, though-- most of the time, a change of authorship leads to that blog dropping out of my regular rotation.

Circling back around to Burke's original aside, there's a sense in which this knowledge becomes confining. Watching a lot of these changes has made me acutely aware that voice is a large part of what I'm looking for in a blog, which makes me more protective of my own little corner of the Internet, and the voice that I've developed here. On those occasions when the blog starts to feel like a burden, I'm briefly tempted to try to recruit a guest-blogger or co-blogger, but I've never really done it (save for a brief stretch in 2007, when Aaron and Nathan filled in while we were in Japan), in large part because I know that as a reader, I find that kind of change of voice jarring.I'm much more likely to put the site on hiatus than to turn it over to someone else, because I want to preserve this space for the voice that I've made for myself. Even when that makes life tougher for me.

And of course, there's the restriction of topics that Burke mentions in the original post. There are things that I just don't write about on the blog, partly because this is under my real name, partly because some topics are just more of a headache than it's worth, and partly because the vice I've established, particularly in the last 3-4 years, doesn't really fit with them. Which is weird, because the blog has always intentionally been kind of a random assortment of stuff that I happen to find interesting at the moment, but partly consciously and partly unconsciously, I've developed a sort of mental list of things that aren't the sort of thing that go on this blog.

I could, of course, start a pseudonymous second blog for the kind of material that doesn't go here, which would probably spare Kate from having to listen to me rant about those topics at dinner. But the voice thing comes around there again, because the voice I've established here is not so different from my normal everyday voice-- I curse a lot less here than in person, but that's the main difference. Trying to write a pseudonymous blog that wouldn't be immediately identifiable as me would require an awful lot of effort, more effort than would be worth it for the sake of blowing off a little steam. If I were going to spend a lot of time writing as somebody other than myself, I'd be better off trying to write a novel, or something like that. (Which I'm not going to do any time soon, don't worry.)

I don't have any kind of grand, global, coherent Point to make here, but this is the sort of stuff that's been rattling around in my head recently on the subject of blogs and voices. Hopefully, typing all this out will make it go away so I can do other things.


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I vaguely recall that some time ago, you had a poll asking what kinds of posts people liked about your blog, and when and why they started reading it. I wish that "Because I like[d] the Voice you write in" had been one of the answers (or that I had thought of it myself), because that would have been mine. (Maybe it would have been there, if you'd written this post before then...)

That said, I'm interested to see a sample excerpt from the list of verboten topics. (I think I can guess a few, but I'd be interested to hear your picks, and why. Think of this as my answer to your recent Ask Me Stuff post.)

Crooked Timber didn't strike me as having a uniform voice before; Belle Waring and John Holbo are both very distinctive from the others. I liked reading Tedra best back at her old blog, when it was just her, though.

That said, I'm interested to see a sample excerpt from the list of verboten topics. (I think I can guess a few, but I'd be interested to hear your picks, and why. Think of this as my answer to your recent Ask Me Stuff post.)

Do you want a list of the topics, or a post about one of those topics? The former is relatively easy: I don't write about internal politics at work, I don't write anything about the family without running it by Kate first, I mostly avoid controversial social and political topics because either I spend ages crafting a post that is sufficiently cautious and nuanced and then nobody comments on it, or I bang out something quick and get endless attacks in comments because I wrote something easily misinterpreted.

I'm highly unlikely to write a post on one of those subjects at the moment, though, because I'm too busy with work and child-wrangling.

Crooked Timber didn't strike me as having a uniform voice before; Belle Waring and John Holbo are both very distinctive from the others. I liked reading Tedra best back at her old blog, when it was just her, though.

Belle and John don't post very often, though (though they tend to do so in bursts). And Holbo's stuff isn't that different from the Chris/ Henry/ Kieran/ John Quiggin amalgam that is my mental image of the Crooked Timber voice. Daniel's also fairly distinctive, but not prolific.